By Chris Dagonas
Perhaps you’ve heard by now, but in case you haven’t, Frank Ocean swings both ways. Yes, the rapper/singer admitted that his first love was with a man, and the media world is still abuzz. Many in the hip-hop community, both musicians and commentators, have expressed their support for Ocean. Will there be someone in the community who speaks out against Frank’s sexual preferences? Based on lyrics in thousands of rap songs, surely someone, somewhere, will say something offensive soon, right?
I doubt it.
Despite what you may think, and despite the lyrics used by most rappers, today’s generation of hip-hop stars is not nearly as homophobic as many would have you think. These young men and women are, more often than not, the same ones that do not fit in during their high school years. They are usually intellectual, or at least street-smart, and have generally rather liberal tendencies. In particular, Odd Future’s front man Tyler Okonma (a.k.a. Tyler, The Creator) has been the most recent poster-villain of organizations like GLAAD for his use of words like “faggot” and “dyke” in many of his songs. But Okonma was an outsider growing up, a product of 1) being the result of an inter-racial coupling, 2) having a single mom, and 3) changing schools over ten times. So maybe he can not sympathize directly with the experience of a young gay individual, but he certainly knows the pain of being an outcast. Furthermore, Ocean is a member of the Odd Future collective, and as such is a close friend of Tyler’s. The camaraderie that comes with hanging out and creating music must be far stronger than any potential homophobia. Besides, fellow Odd Future member Syd the Kid is, in fact, a lesbian. I’d also like to add that I personally really enjoy Odd Future’s music, particularly Tyler’s production and Earl Sweatshirt’s smooth rapping style. Frank Ocean is not my favourite rapper, but he does have a great voice and has already collaborated with mega-stars like Jay-Z and Kanye West.
I will not defend the use of hurtful, stinging words in hip-hop music, but I will attempt to explain where they come from, and describe their context. Young males in inner-city neighbourhoods value one thing above all else; manhood, or at least manhood as perceived by their peers. Athletic skills, talking and acting tough and hooking up with girls are all pieces of the puzzle. Anyone who fails at one (or more) of these endeavours, is ridiculed for lacking the necessary masculinity. Now, no 15 year old I’ve ever met, street-tough or otherwise, well insult a friend in the manner described above, so what word can they use? “You throw like a girl”? “That shirt makes you look like a young woman”? I’m sure Disney Channel approves, but 15-year-old boys are not interested in keeping it PG. They want to use the harshest, most vulgar words they know, and use them as often as possible (again, masculinity comes from how you talk). So they head straight for the words that they know are off-limits in schools or with their parents, and what (in a young boy’s mind) can be less masculine than a man who has no sexual interest in women? And hence, the use of expressions like “You throw like a faggot” or “That shirt is GAY!” Are those expressions stupid? Misguided? Of course, but what about 15-year-old boys isn’t stupid and misguided? But are they hateful, and meant to chastise the entire homosexual population? Certainly not. Now, imagine a 15-year-old trading barbs with his buddies grows a little older, a little more cynical, and is given a microphone and the internet and the chance to say anything that’s on his mind. Of course, using their music as an outlet for all of their teenaged angst and frustration, they turn to those same offensive, vile words they used to use. Except now, with an audience, they are chastised and vilified. But many observers forget, these are still just kids, many of them still in their teen years when they become stars. Tyler himself is just 20 years old now, and many of the songs that feature those words were likely written when he was 17 or 18.
Remember Daniel Day-Lewis’ academy-award winning portrayal of Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood”? Of course, Plainview was a cut-throat, vicious, murderous business-obsessed sociopath who said and did whatever necessary to line his pockets. Now, were the words and actions of Plainview attributed to Day-Lewis? Was Day-Lewis chastised for Plainview’s behaviour? No, what a ridiculous notion, one would say, an actor is not responsible for his character’s actions. Well, current hip-hop follows along a similar path. There is Tyler Okonma, an intelligent, thoughtful young man, and there is Tyler, The Creator, the rapper/producer whose lyrics include rape, murder, and other vile imagery. To truly comprehend the context, one must separate one from the other. Tyler, The Creator calls people “fags” and “dykes”, but Tyler Okonma has some very close friends who are homosexuals. Tyler, The Creator raps about drug use and murder, but Tyler Okonma claims to have never had an alcoholic drink and has no criminal record. Tyler, The Creator, is a character, not a real person, the same way Daniel Plainview was not Daniel Day-Lewis REALLY promoting violence and murder as a means to succeed in industry. This is a major distinction that must be made.
When I was 13, Marshall Mathers (a.k.a. Eminem, a.k.a. Slim Shady) made his astounding debut into mainstream music. My friends and I, absolutely LOVED him. He was funny, he made fun of pop stars of the day, and he spoke for a generation of young boys who felt isolated from the popular culture of the day. He also rapped about those same violent, crazy themes. But even at 13, we understood; this is an act! Of course he didn’t do all of the stuff he said in his songs, or he’d be in jail or dead. Just to make the point even more obvious, Eminem began releasing songs that moved towards more serious issues (“Stan”, for example, was an incredible journey into the mind of the obsessed fan who believed in everything rappers said in their songs). He was growing older, and his fans with him, and when I was entering university, Eminem was rapping about politics, the music industry, his family, and all sorts of other grown-up issues. He remained the voice of my generation, but my generation had lost interest in his earlier themes. I can expect, nay, guarantee, that the same will happen with Odd Future and their current fanbase of pimply, long haired, snapback hat wearing teenaged boys.
And by then, a new act will be around, getting the attention of the watchdog groups and overly zealous parents.
That brings me back to where we started; with the public admission of Frank Ocean’s bisexuality. Despite appearances to the contrary, remember that the hip-hop community is still a community of artists, and artists are known for their liberal, accepting views. He has already received support from Russell Simmons, Busta Rhymes, and Tyler Okonma, three generations of hip-hop coming together to accept one of their own, and stand behind him. Remember that, ultimately, actions speak far louder than words.